:: Article

The Analysis of Melancholy

By Steve Finbow.

k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), edited by Darren Ambrose, foreword by Simon Reynolds, (Repeater Books, 2018).

I’m staring at a white screen, a blank page, frustrated that I can’t find the notes I had written while reading the book I’m supposed to be reviewing but also near petrified at the thought of attempting to encapsulate the ideas contained within its 800-plus pages, frozen by the breadth of Mark Fisher’s theoretical criticism and subject matter. The essence of the book lies within its own existence, the heft of the ‘book thing’ is equivalent to the ideas held within. I would have been happy if Repeater Books had drip fed the reading public with four books of 200 pages over a period of time but they have published a monster upon which we can binge, within which we can wrestle with Marxism, accelerationism, jungle, the Cthulhu Mythos, late-stage capitalism, Batman, Acid Communism and a host of other issues relative to life, culture and politics in the 21st century.

In How We Read and Why, Harold Bloom states, ‘We read frequently if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own,’ and Fisher’s mind is (and I’m going to use the present tense) as close to original as that of any contemporary critic. And it is hard to categorise just what it is that Fisher does — philosophy, politics, musicology, sociology, cultural studies, critical theory, literary theory — a mixture of these disciplines occur within the same essay / article / blog. Fisher began blogging as k-punk in 2003, and influenced countless writers and thinkers before Zero Books published Capitalist Realism in 2009. This interdisciplinary approach to criticism stems from his involvement with the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at Warwick University in the mid-1990s, where he was studying for his PhD. In his writing, the influence of Sadie Plant and Nick Land is evident, however, Fisher’s limpid critical prose enables dialogue with the reader rather than leaving her confused and frustrated by the wilful obscurantism of, say, some of Nick Land’s more smithereenic work. Writing about Brian Ferry’s cover of ‘These Foolish Things’, Fisher explains, ‘This, of course, is because there is no “loved object itself”. What is loved is the petit objet a, which is not a particular object, but the object as such, the “void presupposed by a demand”. The physical and psychical “presence” of the lover is required only as that which allows the assemblage of affects to be given an apparent cohering centre. But, in the end, the lover is just that: the space, the canvas, on which the collage of memories and associations can be arranged’. Explaining Jacques Lacan through the lead singer of Roxy Music is the type of criticism for which British culture has long been waiting.

Reading the essays / articles / blogs collectively, Fisher’s influences are sometimes surprising. There are the usual suspects — William S. Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, Karl Marx, but there are also numerous mentions of Margaret Atwood, the unfashionable Sigmund Freud and the risible, in some philosophical circles, Slavoj Žižek — for whom Fisher kindles a somewhat critical bromance. Although Fisher quotes Freud, Žižek, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant and other critical thinkers, the allusions always explicate the subject matter — be it jungle, Benefits Street or neoliberal Britain. Fisher can also be controversial — the k-punk of culture and politics — going further than Jean Baudrillard, who stated that the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, was ‘the ultimate event, the mother of all events, the pure event uniting within itself all the events that have never taken place,’ Fisher argues, ‘The attack on the World Trade Center … was a brave attempt to free America from the 20th century. The deaths were tragic, but otherwise it was a meaningless act. And that was its point’. This emphasises the syncretic nature of Fisher’s writing, an integration of postmodern, nihilist and radical thought born out of a punk ethic, ‘The development of cheap and readily available sound production software, the web, blogs means there is an unprecedented punk infrastructure available. All that is lacking is the will, the belief that what can happen in something that does not have authorisation/legitimation can be as important — more important — than what comes through official channels’. In the relational criticism of Capitalist Realism, Fisher expands on Johnny Rotten’s quip at the conclusion of his last concert with the Sex Pistols at the Winterland Theater, San Francisco, California on 14 January 1978, ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’

Writing about the film V for Vendetta, Fisher states, ‘The liberal programme articulates itself not only through the logic of rights, but also, crucially, through the notion of identity, and V is attacking both Evey’s rights and her identity. Steve says that you can’t will subjective destitution. I, however, would say that you can only will it, since it is the existential choice in its purest form. Subjective destitution is not something that happens in any straightforward empirical sense; it is, rather, an Event precisely in the sense of being an incorporeal transformation, an ontological reframing to which you must assent’. In this we see the inherent problem of depression from which Fisher suffered, the very question of identity and being suffuses his work, the problems of subjectivity, of relational ethics in a capitalist realist society. In a blog on Richard Kelly’s film The Box, Fisher explains this, ‘The choice to press the button has a special force in the era of globalisation and climate change. We know that our wealth and comfort are achieved at the price of others’ suffering and exploitation, that our smallest actions contribute to ecological catastrophe, but the causal chains connecting our actions with their consequences are so complicated as to be unmappable — they lie far beyond not only our experience, and any possible experience. (Hence the inadequacy of folk politics.)’

These quotes also show the clarity of Fisher’s writing, bringing his prose style closer to that of Alain Badiou and Michel Foucault than that of Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, yet we cannot imagine Badiou writing about eMMplekz, a Foucault essay on the Sleaford Mods, a Derrida disquisition on The Hunger Games or a Lacan discourse on Mike Tyson. If it is a postmodern trait to mix low and high culture (whatever they are these days), champion the virtual over the Real (whatever that is), then Fisher’s essays / articles / blogs re-politicize theory, rejuvenate working-class culture, reinvigorate music, art, film and literary criticism. This is evident in the brilliant opening passages of ‘Postmodernism as Pathology, Part 2’, ‘The thing is, Robbie, there’s no rehabilitation from PoMo. The sickness that afflicts Robbie Williams is nothing less than postmodernity itself. Look at Williams: his whole body is afflicted with reflexive tics, an ego-armoury of grimaces, gurns and grins designed to disavow any action even as he performs it. He is the “as if” pop star — he dances as if he is dancing, he emotes as if he is emoting, at all times scrupulously signalling — with perpetually raised eyebrows —t hat he doesn’t mean it, it’s just an act. He wants to be loved for “Rudebox” but, unfortunately for him, his audience demands the mawkish sentimentality of “Angels”. How Robbie must hate that song now, with its humbling reminders of dependency”. Sometimes, Fisher writes like Michael Bracewell shot through with Marx, like Roland Barthes listening to breakbeat hardcore, or like a radical Geoff Dyer infused with the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft rather than D. H. Lawrence.

Fisher theorizes on late-stage capitalism, hauntology, mental illness, rave culture, and many other subjects in a confluence of popular culture and critical theory. What he mostly writes about is the now, what it’s like to live in these times out of joint. In the blog ‘Autonomy in the UK’, Fisher argues, ‘When the Real rushes in, everything feels like a film: not a film you’re watching, but a film you’re in. Suddenly, the screens insulating we late-capitalist spectators from the Real of antagonism and violence f(a)ll away.’. If the essays / articles / blogs appear to be eschatological, then they might very well be, they explain how and why we have arrived at this stage in Western civilization. If they come across as depressing, the sheer vitality and depth of Fisher’s writing counters that and produces within the pessimism a deep-rooted positivism: ‘Collective depression is the result of the ruling-class project of resubordination. For some time now, we have increasingly accepted the idea that we are not the kind of people who can act. This isn’t a failure of will any more than an individual depressed person can “snap themselves out of it” by “pulling their socks up”. The rebuilding of class consciousness is a formidable task indeed, one that cannot be achieved by calling upon ready-made solutions — but, in spite of what our collective depression tells us, it can be done. Inventing new forms of political involvement, reviving institutions that have become decadent, converting privatised disaffection into politicised anger: all of this can happen, and when it does, who knows what is possible?’

The collection ends with ‘Acid Communism,’ an unfinished introduction to what would have been his next book. It is an important document showing where Fisher’s thoughts were moving and, as in the best in this collection, it is an amalgam of critical thinkers (Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Stuart Hall, and Foucault), pop culture (Danny Baker, the Beatles, John Foxx and the Temptations) and politics (the death of Salvador Allende, the rise of neoliberalism, the Lordstown strike and Autonomism). Eugene Thacker wrote, ‘This theme — the limits of what can be known, the limits of what can be felt, the limits of what can be done — is central to Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie,’ and it is central to his writing as a whole; the limitations of culture, politics and life and the means of transgressing those delimiting forces, of trespassing on finitude, of understanding alterity against prevailing identitarian forces. If Fisher’s suicide is a dreadful loss to his family, friends and followers — as well as to cultural criticism — then this collection goes some way to keeping his thoughts alive and relevant. Badiou wrote, ‘Everyone knows that to endure the requirement of a philosophically disinterested-interest, you have to have encountered, at least once in your life, the voice of a Master’. And that’s what Mark Fisher is. Exit, pursued by relief.

Steve Finbow’s fiction includes Balzac of the Badlands (Future Fiction London, 2009), Tougher Than Anything in the Animal Kingdom (Grievous Jones Press, 2011), Nothing Matters (Snubnose Press, 2012) and Down Among the Dead (Number Thirteen Press, 2014). His biography of Allen Ginsberg in Reaktion’s Critical Lives series was published in 2011. His other works include Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (Zero Books, 2014) and Notes from the Sick Room (Repeater Books, 2017). Death-Mort-Tod: A European Book of the Dead is forthcoming in December 2018. He lives in France.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 6th, 2018.